Good news, Harvard is broke
April 24, 2012  

Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council on the Library has declared that

major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.

This is excellent news. If Harvard cannot afford its journal subscriptions, then you can be sure that no academic institution can continue to go along with the extortion of today’s academic publishing industry. And if that’s the case, perhaps there is hope for change.

What should be done? According to the Council, faculty should no longer submit papers to closed access journals, and they should resign from editorial boards for closed access journals. Instead, they should support open access publishers.

This is great advice. Open access publishing can be cheap, as explained by Harvard’s own Stuart Schieber. Most academic journals already obtain the research, peer review, and many editorial positions at no cost—the contrast between costs and prices charged has been a major impetus behind the open access movement. Schieber points out in addition that most authors do a better job of typesetting and copy editing than traditional publishers. And by running his own press, he has demonstrated that the cost of a printed journal can be brought to under 10 cents per page.

I agree with everything Schieber says in his article, but I would go further. Many journals, whether closed or open access, run elaborate web sites. These sites serve as the primary, and often, sole, source for downloading articles, and they can provide other services like search, statistics on readership and impact factor, and reader comments. This is unnecessary: these services are already better provided by others, e.g., CiteULike, Mendeley, CiteSeer, etc.

Journals should have minimal web sites. The only real purpose of a journal is to provide certification for its articles: it certifies that its articles have met its standards, including peer review. This certification can be provided simply as a list of accepted articles, plus information regarding the constitution of the editorial board and its standards.

The site can certainly provide the articles themselves, but this should not be the sole or primary way to access the articles. Instead, we should do what we have done for thousands of years: rely on libraries to provide access. Partner with libraries to mirror the content—this requires only using cryptographic hashes to validate the articles. Multiple copies at libraries around the world ensures preservation of the journal, even in the case that the journal ceases publication. Open access should embrace (verifiable) replication, by libraries, by authors, by anyone.

Journals should not be printed. Paper documents are much more expensive and inefficient than electronic documents, and they are no better at ensuring preservation. Moreover, reading is increasing happening on electronic devices, where reformatting is a requirement. Even when readers prefer paper, they will usually make their own printout from an electronic document, rather than using their library’s printed copy.

By following Schieber’s advice, and by further eliminating the costs of a web site and printing, we can make the cost of the journal dependent on just peer review and editorial functions. This is a cost that Harvard and the rest of the academic community can easily afford.